Surabhi Pandey in Singapore (Image Credit: Surabhi Pandey)

From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.

I live two lives — one when I am at home in India and the other when I am at my other home in Singapore.

I am a saree-clad, bindi-sporting married Indian woman in India, and I am a saree-clad, bindi-sporting married Indian woman in Singapore. I know on the surface both versions sound the same but in reality, they aren’t.

In India, I am normal. I fit right in.

In Singapore, I am ethnic, exotic, brown, Desi, and a lot of other things. I don’t fit in.

While I enjoy the perks of both lives, I am constantly plagued by the daunting question that haunts the likes of most South Asians living abroad, should I consider going back to India?

First things first, why do we feel the need to migrate?

Some do it for better job opportunities, some for a better lifestyle, and some, like me, simply follow the fate that unfolds in their lives. While life outside India seems glamorous and luxurious to many, it isn’t always the case, and NRI life comes with its own sets of challenges. However, there are also some eye-opening experiences that this life brings for which I am grateful.

From Begusarai to Ballota Park

Harrakh-Begusarai, India

Those who follow this column and have read my work in the past are aware that I grew up in a non-city (a district) called Begusarai in the North Indian state of Bihar. My house is a three-storied bungalow sitting in the heart of the city surrounded by a village on one side and farmlands on the other. From the roof, I can see men and women bathing in open showers or near handpumps, kids playing and fighting, and sometimes if I am up too early, I also get to see people going to the loo (a sight I don’t fancy but have unfortunately encountered many times).

The street coming to my home has open garbage areas where cows, buffaloes, and goats choose organic waste from all the trash (or at least try to) and graze. There is an abandoned wooden shop with Ganesha’s vivid painting drawn on it and a transformer that stands tall supplying electricity to the colony. I love my home, I love Begusarai. It is peaceful, home to familiar faces at every nook and corner, and has calm serendipity that for me, no other city or country can match. Waking up to the sound of kids playing, trains whistling and passing by and birds chirping right on the windows of my house is something that I cherish and miss the most when I am away.

Cut two, after marriage, I find myself in Ballota Park, a decent society in the city-state of Singapore. The world’s most expensive city to live in, Singapore is known for its immaculate clean streets and well-behaved citizens who do not bathe, fight, poo or play in the open. I have the utmost appreciation for my time in Singapore. I love the air quality, the amazing public transport, and the beautiful scenes right outside any given window throughout the country. It is oddly quiet as no one speaks too loud and animals can be seen only in zoos and bird parks. Initially, the quiet here was too much for me. I would play Friends or Brooklyn Nine-Nine round-the-clock to kill the quiet and feel some sort of sanity. Now, I guess, I am used to it. Sadly, India feels too loud if I am visiting after a long gap.

Crime and the Sheer Lack of It

If you are even remotely aware of Begusarai or even follow Indian cinema closely, you must be aware that the district has a very notorious image. Abduction, gang wars, and murders were common when I was growing up. In fact, Prakash Jha’s Apahran was loosely based on serial abductions in Begusarai. The scenes have changed now or at least I’d like to think they have; although only last year, my mom witnessed a shootout on the streets near to our house so who’s to say. 

In my second life, I am in Singapore where young girls and boys party freely at night and reach their homes safely in hailed rides. I cannot even imagine a shootout or gang wars in this city-state. In fact, in Singapore crime rates are some of the lowest in the world. For my mom when she was visiting, the idea that we could book a cab from the casino at 3 in the morning and get home safely was alien and surprising. Let’s just leave it at that.

Again, I love Begusarai and I am proud to be a Bihari. These just happen to be sad striking facts and my personal experience of the juxtaposition in my two lives.

The COVID-19 Difference

As I write this post, I am sitting in my in-laws’ home in Patna. There’s apparently a curfew here and a partial lockdown right now due to the increasing cases of COVID-19. However, I don’t see any difference on the streets. Unmasked people are donning the roads, markets are not as lively as they used to be but they are also not empty. I hardly see anyone using hand sanitizers or practicing safe distancing. In fact, during New Year, half of my friends were sharing stories from Shimla, Goa, and the likes. It simply baffles me. And, this is not just this year but has been the common approach since the beginning of the pandemic. There is only a section of the society that takes it seriously but unfortunately the way the virus works, if more than half of the population thinks this is “nothing”, then who knows when the pandemic will end.

Ballota Park, Singapore

Back in Singapore, my husband and I passed 2020 and most of 2021 locked in our two BHK flat, never stepped out of the house without masks and hand sanitizers, there are check-in points and safe distancing everywhere and the government reprimands people who do not follow the guidelines. We were scared and constantly packed in our homes with limited guest visits and rare outings.

Culture and Community Support

One last thing that strikes as a major difference between the two lives is culture and the lack of it plus a sense of community and belonging.

In Begusarai, from Diwali to Holi and Durga Pooja to Eid, the whole district is decorated like a new bride and everyone celebrates these festivals with zeal. People wear Indian clothes, follow rituals and traditions, and are not at all influenced by western culture like the cities in India.

In Singapore, I miss this. I miss my culture and traditions. Although I try my best and celebrate all festivals with my friends and family, I do miss India.

Another thing that makes up the essence of any Indian village, district, town, or city is the community. From funerals to weddings and birthdays to housewarming, in an Indian mohalla when there’s a ceremony at one person’s house, the entire mohalla is involved. From helping with cooking meals to offering their homes for relatives to sleep at, this is the level of togetherness in our societies even today. This is something that Singapore lacks. Even the neighbors rarely smile at you and they’d never know even if you carried and birthed a child while living right next door. 

In a nutshell, both lives have pros and cons. I am fortunate enough that I get to experience the good and bad of both worlds and I hope that these experiences will enrich me as a person and help me see the world in a different light.

Are you an NRI? What’s your experience?

Surabhi Pandey, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Surabhi’s work has appeared in various publications in India, Singapore, and the US. She writes on topics related to lifestyle and travel and is an active reporter on the tech startup ecosystem in Southeast Asia. Website | Blog | Instagram

Surabhi, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to over 15 anthologies in English...